The mysterious disappearance this February of an Irish writer seeking spiritual enlightenment in India has focused attention on what some doctors refer to as the India Syndrome, a controversial form of psychosis.
Jonathan Spollen, a 28-year-old journalist with long, brown hair and an Irish brogue, traveled to Rishikesh from Dublin, arriving in January. Spollen had previously quit his job as a copy editor with the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong and also had broken up with his girlfriend.
“He talked about how he was hitting 29 and felt it was the right moment to take some time out at his own pace," Spollen's mother Lynda told the Irish Times. "We even coined a word for it, whimming, in that he could decide he was going to change his mind on a whim.”
The last time Spollen's mother, Lynda, spoke to her son was on Feb. 3. He called to say he was setting off on a trek into a wooded area outside Rishikesh. He said cell service would be spotty but promised to text whenever he could.
“I asked him if he was taking a guide, but he said he would do the trek alone. He was upbeat and told me not to worry. I said I would prefer if he had a guide, and he replied: ‘No, I want to do it on my own. It’s a spiritual thing,'" she said.
As three weeks turned into four, Jonathan's parents contacted local authorities as well as the Irish Embassy. They also turned to the expat community for help, posting on IndiaMike.com, a popular message board for travelers. The "Have you seen Jonathan Spollen? Missing in Rishikesh since February 3rd, 2012" thread has received more than 1,700 responses spanning 119-plus pages.
In March, police made a breakthrough in the case when they discovered Spollen's passport, clothes, cash and sleeping roll next to a waterfall in Rishikesh's Laxman Jhula district.
Currently, there are two main theories to his disappearance: Foul play of some kind, or Spollen's decision to leave his worldly possessions behind and go off the grid--perhaps visiting one of the region's many ashrams.
“We are searching scores of ashrams in Rishikesh and also co-ordinating with police from the neighbouring district of Haridwar to expand our reach to ashrams there too,” district police chief Neeru Garg told the Irish Times. “He may have wanted to ‘disappear’, and to do so in the ashrams is easy.”
But others posting to IndiaMike are more dubious of the spiritual quest theory.
Scott Carney, author of the in-depth piece about Spollen on Details.com, has traveled throughout India himself and believes the India Syndrome is a real thing. Westerners, Carney writes, can become overwhelmed by their "quest." Culture shock, drug usage and even intense meditation can cause these travelers to set adrift.
Seemingly sane people get out of bed one day claiming they've discovered the lost continent of Lemuria, or that the end of the world is nigh, or that they've awakened their third eye. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.
French author and psychiatrist Régis Airault wrote about the condition, which is so far not recognized by the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV," the bible of psychological illnesses, in his book, Fous de l'Inde.
Kalyan Sachdev, the medical director of Privat Hospital in New Delhi, told Details.com that his facility admits about a hundred Westerners a year for treatment related to the syndrome.
A documentary on the subject seeks to explore the issue. Accompanied by Airault, filmmaker Philippe Vitaller "meets many travelers who share their fascination or trauma" as he also attempts to understand the phenomenon.
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Spollen is not the first Westerner to go missing near the sacred city, located on the banks of the Ganges. In 2005, a young Australian man named Ryan Chambers disappeared, barefoot and shirtless, leaving behind all his worldly possessions and a note that read, "If I'm gone, don't worry. I'm not dead, I'm freeing minds. But first I have to free my own." Chambers remains missing.
Although the number of responses to IndiaMike regarding Spollen's whereabouts have dwindled, his family refuses to believe he is dead. One of the last posts is from Oct. 8. His mother urges anyone who thinks they might have seen her son to take a picture, and then immediately contact the police.
"I am so very aware of how important IndiaMike has been and continues to be to the search for Jonathan," she writes, "so please keep those suggestions coming – I truly believe the answer is out there and we will find it – together we will find him."